GUELPH, Ont.—Merlin seems remarkably unfazed by the masked, gloved, protective-suited humans assertively handling him.
Then again, the Labrador retriever has already survived pretend-Ebola. So contracting pretend-novel-coronavirus for the purposes of this simulation is a walk in the park.
Scott Weese, Merlin’s owner and director of the Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses at the University of Guelph, and Marlowe Schott, an infection control practitioner, carefully don layers of protective equipment and then even more carefully strip them all off. They are alert for ways a dog who actually did have novel coronavirus might expose them — like by panting on their faces.
Merlin, who stays calm and obedient in the cramped isolation room, gets a treat. Final diagnosis: very good boy.
Public health officials worldwide are scrambling to contain the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 37,000 people, including seven in Canada, and killed more than 800.
Weese wants to make sure all the relevant Canadian authorities are asking: what would we do if a pet became infected?
This question is neither academic nor alarmist, though Weese stresses that nobody should worry. There is currently no evidence dogs or cats are spreading the coronavirus, though it was likely first transmitted to humans by an animal.
We shouldn’t panic — but we should be prepared. In the aftermath of the SARS crisis, researchers showed that domestic cats could catch severe acute respiratory syndrome and transmit it to other cats, as could ferrets. Cats living in a Hong Kong apartment block with an unusual number of SARS patients were found to be infected with the virus. Dogs belonging to Ebola-infected health-care workers in Spain and the United States were destroyed or quarantined because officials were concerned about transmissibility.
With the novel coronavirus, “We have no idea if there’s any risk, but we have to assume there is some until we prove otherwise,” Weese told the Star last week after giving a talk on animals and infectious diseases at the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association conference in Toronto.
“If we’re saying your husband has to undergo quarantine, then we should do the same thing with your dog and your cat.”
Weese would rather see us keep a few animals inside now and find out later such measures were unnecessary than not bother and find out later they played a role in transmission.
“That said, it’s actually harder to quarantine a dog then a person, in some ways,” he adds. Dogs need to pee, and cats can’t order UberEats.
If a coronavirus patient could no longer care for their pet, it would almost certainly come here, to the Ontario Veterinary College Health Sciences Centre, the largest animal hospital in Canada and a facility equipped with high-level isolation units.
Weese’s wariness stems from an urgent truth many researchers believe deserves more attention: when it comes to infectious diseases, the barrier between humans and all other animals is highly permeable.
SARS most likely originated in Chinese horseshoe bats and jumped to palm civets, a wild mammal being sold at a live animal market in China’s Guangdong province, before spilling over into humans who worked at the market. Researchers’ current best guess for the source of the novel coronavirus is also bats, and then likely an intermediary mammal before making the jump to humans. On Friday, Chinese researchers published preliminary results — disputed by some scientists as insufficient — suggesting the coronavirus’s host animal is the pangolin, a protected mammal that is nevertheless widely trafficked illegally.
Over 70 per cent of new infectious diseases come from animals, according to estimates. Ebola, anthrax, swine influenza, avian influenza, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome all have animal origins.
But transmission can go both ways — which is a problem for humans, too. If an infectious disease is eliminated in us but continues to circulate in animals, those animals act as a “reservoir” for disease and risk sparking a new outbreak. Pets can also be an infectious risk simply because we touch them a lot: it’s hard to disinfect fur.
During the SARS crisis of 2003, which sickened more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed almost 800, including 44 in Canada, Weese tried to flag pets as a concern. He reached out to a prominent microbiologist during the crisis and raised the prospect of human-to-animal transmission.
“The response kind of was, ‘Yeah, it’s interesting, gotta go.’ You’re in the middle of chaos mode, and this is a side issue — dealing with all the human stuff is a priority, obviously.”
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star’s Morning Headlines email newsletter for a briefing of the day’s big news.
Public health officials rely on “contact tracing” when trying to limit the spread of infectious disease: identifying and following up with anyone who may have come in contact with a sick person. In Toronto in 2003, over 23,000 people were quarantined because of contact with a known or suspected SARS case.
“Traditionally that means human contacts,” says Weese. “To me, contacts means anything that has a pulse.”
Weese knew the spread of SARS could catastrophically accelerate if the virus found a foothold in, say, Toronto’s population of stray cats.
SARS exposed dangerous gaps in Toronto’s health-care system, some of which were patched over: hospital infection prevention and control teams added staff, local public health agencies expanded, and rapid communication systems were developed.
For human health, “the response to this was a lot better than SARS because all the preparedness was there. The response to the animal side still isn’t as nice as I want it to be,” but it’s better, thanks partly to work carried out in the aftermath of a high-profile Ebola scare.
Nothing sharpens the mind like an outbreak of highly contagious hemorrhagic fever: For a few months in late 2014, the public seemed suddenly and deeply invested in whether pets could catch infectious diseases.
A devastating outbreak of Ebola was growing in West Africa, which would ultimately kill more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In October of that year, a Spanish nurse caught Ebola from a patient who had arrived from the region.
Despite protests, Spanish health authorities destroyed the nurse’s dog, fearing transmission. Evidence to support those fears is limited: one study found that dogs living near an outbreak site carried Ebola antibodies, suggesting some level of infection.
Later the same month, a Texas nurse was diagnosed with Ebola. Her dog, Bentley, was quarantined, eliciting an outpouring of support for the dog — then president Barack Obama inquired about Bentley after the nurse was released from hospital.
Afterwards, Weese and several co-authors developed a comprehensive guidance document for what would happen in Ontario if a dog were exposed to Ebola.
With Merlin acting as the exposed animal, Weese and a colleague ran a thorough, hours-long simulation, including retrieving, transporting and isolating Merlin, to suss out all possible contingencies. (For a cat, they would wear scratch-resistant Kevlar gloves.) They covered themselves in ketchup and chocolate sauce before stripping off their protective equipment: any stain on their bodies or clothes after de-gowning was evidence of “Ebola” contamination.
“When we wrote the Ebola (guidelines), we realized we were probably never going to use it, but maybe we would use it for something else,” says Weese. The current coronavirus outbreak “is kind of the example.”
Weese stresses repeatedly there is no reason to be worried that cats and dogs are going to spread coronavirus in Ontario. As he recently wrote on his “Worms and Germs” blog, “It can be a battle getting people to think about animal issues without going over the top, because the line between awareness and paranoia is pretty short.”
He wants us to reconsider our understanding of animals not just in the realm of disease, but more broadly.
We aren’t a population of people living amidst dogs, cats, pigs and pangolins: we’re animals too, sharing a single planet with all the others.